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Piano Concerti

Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto in B-flat major, op. 83

By November 23, 2020April 6th, 2023No Comments

I seem to find myself in a Brahmsian universe. As such, I am posting this performance of the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto in B-flat major, op.83. This is a long work, but I encourage you to listen to it. I have heard recordings by many pianists and many conductors. There are none that are better than Reiner, Gilels, and the Chicago Symphony. If you would like to hear other versions of this concerto, I would suggest Serkin with Szell and the Cleveland and Szell with Leon Fleisher and the Cleveland (the second recording, not the first).

About the piece

Although Brahms was mid-career before he wrote his first official symphony, he had already made his way to the symphonic edge with his grand Piano Concerto No. 1. The concerto was his first composition for orchestra and one that, via its scope and style (Brahms wanted to integrate the piano and orchestra more fully than the standard concerto), is near to being a symphony. Twenty-two years later, the four-movement Piano Concerto No. 2 tightened the piano-orchestra relationship, and even further and broadened the form into something that was a symphony with a leading solo voice, the piano and orchestra following the same path, hand in hand. Both concertos are grand and poetic.

Always self-critical, Brahms worked on the Second Piano Concerto for three years. He wrote to Clara Schumann: “I want to tell you that I have written a very small piano concerto with a very small and pretty scherzo.” Ironic, as he was describing a giant of a piece.

The B-flat Concerto (1881) dates from the start of Brahms’ ripest maturity, the period when his fame had reached a peak throughout Europe and his physical image as we know it best was fixed: bearded and corpulent.

The Concerto in B-flat, in four movements rather than the usual three, opens with a marvelous, mood-setting horn call that seems to gather all the other instruments, with the piano responding to its graceful melody with its own, equally graceful arpeggios before embarking on a thorny cadenza that announces the virtuoso nature of the movement in no uncertain terms.

Although Brahms labeled the second movement a scherzo (or “tiny, tiny little scherzo”) – hardly a form commonly found in a concerto – it is in fact the most dramatic and tempestuous of the four movements, at the outset a crashing, battering workout for the piano, followed and contrasted by a yearning, mellow theme for the violins and a noble trio section, prior to the repetition of the opening histrionics.

The slow nocturnal movement is based entirely on the solo cello’s eight-measure phrase, which is subsequently passed to the violins and then expanded by the piano – a melody to which Brahms would later return for one of his most haunting songs, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (Ever gentler grows my slumber).

A final rondo finishes the piece. There are five different sections with five different themes.

Emil Gilels

Born: October 19, 1916 – Odessa, Russia
Died: October 14, 1985 – Moscow, Russia

Emil Grigoryevich Gilels was a Soviet pianist. He was born Samuil Hilels in Odessa to a musical Jewish family; both his parents were musicians. He began studying the piano at 6 under Yakov Tkach, a stern disciplinarian who emphasized scales and studies. Gilels later credited this strict training as establishing the foundation for his technique. Gilels made his public debut at the age of 12 in June 1929 with a well-received program of Beethoven, Scarlatti, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann. In 1930, he entered the Odessa Conservatory where he was coached by Berta Reingbald, whom Gilels credited as a formative influence.

In 1933, Gilels won the newly-founded All Soviet Union Piano Competition at age 16. After graduating from the Odessa Conservatory (Ukraine) in 1935, he moved to Moscow, where he studied under the famous piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus until 1937. A year later, at age 21, he won the Ysaÿe International Festival in Brussels, beating such competitors as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Moura Lympany.

Gilels was the first Soviet artist to be allowed to travel extensively in the West. After the war, he toured Europe starting from 1947 as a concert pianist, and made his American debut in 1955 playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Philadelphia. He taught as a professor for the Moscow Conservatory after 1952. In his later years he remained in his native Russia and rarely ventured abroad. He was the winner of the prestigious Stalin Prize in 1946, the Order of Lenin in 1961 and 1966 and the Lenin Prize in 1962. Emil Gilels premiered Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8, dedicated to Mira Mendelssohn, on December 30, 1944, at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

Gilels is regarded by many as one of the most significant pianists of the 20th century and he is universally admired for his superb technical control and burnished tone. His interpretations of the central German-Austrian classics formed the core of his repertoire, in particular Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, but he was equally illuminative in Scarlatti, J.S. Bach as well as 20th-century music like Debussy, Béla Bartók and Prokofiev.

Fritz Reiner

Fritz Reiner was born “Reiner Frigyes” – the Hungarian version of his name – and his birth was later recorded in the German version as “Frederick Martin Reiner”. He was born in Budapest, Hungary on December 19, 1888. Budapest was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Fritz Reiner’s family was a German and Hungarian-speaking secular Jewish family.

Reiner showed musical ability early, he began to study the piano at the age of six. He was encouraged by his mother Vilma, née Pollak, and at age 10, Reiner entered the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. At the Academy, as well as a general music education, he studied piano, including with Bela Bartok and composition with Leo Weiner (1885-1960) – who also later taught George Solti and Janos Starker.

Reiner was selected to be music director at the Dresden Royal Opera House in 1913.

In November 1921, following eight seasons in Dresden, Reiner resigned his position to take up conducting engagements in Rome and Barcelona. While in Spain, he received an offer to become conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, then being reorganized.

After leaving Cincinnati in April, 1931, Reiner moved to Philadelphia, where Reiner would take up teaching duties at the Curtis Institute in September, 1931.

In 1937, civic leaders of Pittsburgh decided to reorganize the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with new financial underwriting and with a schedule of 13 pairs of concerts for the 1937-1938 season, to be conducted by guest conductors. In March, 1938, the Pittsburgh Board announced the appointment of Fritz Reiner as Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony for the 1938-1939 season.

During 1949-1953, first as a guest conductor and later under contract, Fritz Reiner conducted at the Metropolitan Opera. Reiner was the principal among a number of staff conductors at the Met, including during the early regime of Rudolf Bing, who became General Manager in 1950. While at the Met, Reiner conducted a number of famous productions, including in 1949, the Strauss Salome with soprano Ljuba Welitsch as Salome, and the U.S. premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ in 1951.

After decades of frustration for Fritz Reiner, constantly seeking his own orchestra in a major cultural center with sound financial backing, in 1953, Fritz Reiner was named Music Director of the Chicago Symphony. He maintained this post for nine seasons until the end of the 1961-1962 season. At this point, his health began to fail, particularly due to a coronary problem. Fritz Reiner then became “Musical Advisor” in Chicago for the 1962-1963 season, but was unable to carry on. Fritz Reiner died in New York City November 15, 1963.

Although many conductors had the reputation of being a disciplinarian, Fritz Reiner seems to have had a sadistic streak in his conduct, and was famous for his hounding of the the musicians of weakest character in his orchestras.

Regarding the greatness of Fritz Reiner as a conductor, the opinions of a wide variety of his fellow musicians (both admirers and critics) testified that Reiner had one of the most effective conducting techniques of his era. With many of his performances still available, one can find the finest realizations of scores of composers over a wide range of periods and of styles.